Bush in the Bubble

Jack Murtha still can't figure out why the father and son treated him so differently. Every week or so before the '91 gulf war, President George H.W. Bush would invite Congressman Murtha, along with other Hill leaders, to the White House. "He would listen to all the bitching from everybody, Republicans and Democrats, and then he would do what he thought was right." A decorated Vietnam veteran, ex-Marine Murtha was a critical supporter for the elder Bush on Capitol Hill. "I led the fight for the '91 war," he says. "I led the fight, for Christ's sake."

Yet 13 years later, when Murtha tried to write George W. Bush with some suggestions for fighting the Iraq war, the congressman's letter was ignored by the White House (after waiting for seven months, Murtha received a polite kiss-off from a deputy under secretary of Defense). Murtha, who has always preferred to operate behind the scenes, finally went public, calling for an orderly withdrawal from Iraq. In the furor that followed, a White House spokesman compared the Vietnam War hero to "Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party." When that approach backfired, President Bush called Murtha a "fine man... who served our country with honor." The White House has made no attempt to reach out to Murtha since then. "None. None. Zero. Not one call," a baffled Murtha told NEWSWEEK. "I don't know who the hell they're talking to. If they talked to people, they wouldn't get these outbursts. If they'd talked to me, it wouldn't have happened."

A White House aide, who like virtually all White House officials (in this story and in general) refused to be identified for fear of antagonizing the president, says that Murtha was a lost cause anyway and dismisses the notion that Bush is isolated or out of touch. Still, the complaints don't just come from Democrats: Sen. Richard Lugar, Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointedly told reporters that Bush needs to "have much more of a cadre of people in both houses, from both parties" visiting the White House "very frequently." Lugar cited Bill Clinton as the model.

President Bush has always shown an admirable ability to ignore the Washington pundits and make fun of the chattering classes. Yet his inattention to Murtha, a coal-country Pennsylvanian and rock-solid patriot, suggests a level of indifference, if not denial, that is dangerous for a president who seeks to transform the world. All presidents face a tension between sticking to their guns and dealing with changing reality. History suggests it can be a mistake to listen too closely to the ever-present (and often self-aggrandizing) critics. But likewise, the idea that any president can go it alone is, to say the least, problematic.

Clearly, George W. Bush's role model is not his father, who every week would ride down from the White House to the House of Representatives gymnasium, just to hear what fellows like Murtha were saying. Nor is the model John F. Kennedy, who during the Cuban missile crisis reached out to form an "ExCom" of present and past national-security officials, from both parties, to find some way back from the abyss short of war. Nor is it Franklin Roosevelt, who liked to create competition between advisers to find the best solution. Or Abraham Lincoln who, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in her new book, "Team of Rivals," appointed his political foes to his cabinet.

Bush likes to say that his hero is Ronald Reagan, a true-blue conservative who knew his own mind. But Reagan also knew when to compromise, and when he got into trouble early in his second term, he reached out for help, making a moderate, former senator, Howard Baker, his chief of staff. The chance that George W. Bush will give a top White House job to an establishment moderate (say, Brent Scow-croft, his father's national-security adviser) is about the same as that Texas will become a province of France.

Bush may be the most isolated president in modern history, at least since the late-stage Richard Nixon. It's not that he is a socially awkward loner or a paranoid. He can charm and joke like the frat president he was. Still, beneath a hail-fellow manner, Bush has a defensive edge, a don't-tread-on-me prickliness. It shows in Bush's humor. When Reagan told a joke, it almost never was about someone in the room. Reagan's jokes may have been scatological or politically incorrect, but they were inclusive, intended to make everyone join in the laughter. Often, Bush's joking is personal--it is aimed at you. The teasing can be flattering (the president gave me a nickname!), but it is intended, however so subtly, to put the listener on the defensive. It is a towel-snap that invites a retort. How many people dare to snap back at a president?

Not many, and not unless they have known the president a long, long time. (Even Karl Rove, or "Turd Blossom," as he is sometimes addressed by the president, knows when to hold his tongue.) In the Bush White House, disagreement is often equated with disloyalty.

Lately, there are some signs that the White House is trying to dispel the image of the Bush Bubble (or Bunker). Last week, as part of a campaign to reach out to critics, the president addressed the Council on Foreign Relations, a bastion of East Coast establishment moderates. This week Bush will entertain a delegation of Hill Democrats (routine in the administrations of his father and Reagan, very unusual under this president). In his public comments, Bush for the first time is acknowledging that the war in Iraq has not gone quite as well as hoped for. And some kind of a cabinet shake-up is likely in the new year.

Yet such concessions may be more show than substance. White House officials, as well as one of his closest friends (also speaking anonymously so as not to complicate relations with the president), say that Bush remains sure that he is on the proper course in Iraq and that ultimately he will be vindicated by history. The president may be right. The Iraqi elections next week could produce a government that survives the insurgency and establishes the first (albeit shaky and not quite Western style) democracy in an Arab state--even if that looks like a long haul by today's light. With an improving economy, Bush's popularity could well rebound. Washington pendulums always swing; Bush's polls appear to have bottomed out and are rising, at least slightly.

In any case, the record so far suggests that Bush is not likely to change in any fundamental way in the three years that remain in his term. He has won two presidential elections and one war (Afghanistan) and is, at least by his own reckoning, winning two more (Iraq and the Global War on Terror, or GWOT). His character was forged by hard-won struggles with drink and more shadowy demons, and he has been redeemed by faith. Bush sometimes compares himself to other presidents, usually in terms of how not to do the job. These comparisons are instructive, though not always as flattering as Bush thinks:

Bush is not Bill Clinton. Bush recoiled from the sloppiness and waffling of his predecessor. He has no use for the kind of endless, circular collegiate bull sessions that characterized Clinton's administration. In 43's White House, meetings start on time, everyone wears a suit and pizza boxes are nowhere to be seen. But Clinton was able to see, in a way that Bush perhaps does not, that the White House can be, as Clinton put it in his sometimes whiny way, "the crown jewel of the federal prison system." Clinton insisted on having his own private phone line and fax line so that he could reach out (often, to the dismay of those on the receiving end, at 2 a.m.).

Bush is not Lyndon Johnson. Johnson liked to keep three TVs blaring in his office, and he would call reporters at home to browbeat them. Bush has said he does not read the newspapers (actually, he does). "I'm not LBJ," Bush told a recent gathering of lawmakers. "I'm not going to sit around some map room and micromanage the war." Bush was slightly confusing his wars and presidents. It was Franklin Roosevelt who ran World War II from the Map Room; LBJ descended into the Situation Room in the basement to pick bombing targets. It is true that LBJ was nearly driven mad by his obsession with Vietnam and his insecurities about the "Harvards," whom he blamed for sucking him into the war. But forced to listen to his critics--the so-called Wise Men who gathered at the White House in March 1968 to tell him that the war was unwinnable--LBJ was able to reverse course and begin the drawdown of troops from Vietnam.

Bush is not his father. It is not necessary to read Sophocles' Oedipus Rex to see Bush's reaction to his father's presidency. The younger Bush was a political aide in his father's White House. From a front-row seat, he watched with horror as aides leaked and double-crossed to get rid of chief of staff John Sununu (even as he joined in the plotting). "I'm sure he was informed by the experiences he saw when his dad was president," Bush's current chief of staff, Andy Card, told NEWSWEEK. "And that's one reason why he has confided in me." (Card was a rare Bush 41 staffer who did not backstab.) Much is said about Bush's premium on loyalty, but the key word is trust. Like Robert De Niro's ex CIA officer in "Meet the Parents," Bush has a very small circle of trust. From his days as a small oil businessman, Bush believes in handshakes. He was infuriated, for instance, when former German chancellor Gerhard Schroder promised that he would stick with Bush on Iraq--and then won re-election in 2002 by campaigning against the run-up to the war.

Bush's real friends are his old Texas and school buddies from Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School. He calls them all the time--but the talk is usually comforting and jocular, of sports and old days. They rarely dispense pointed political advice or brace him with bad news. Chief of staff Card is widely described by insiders as a decent and honorable man, but also as a family retainer who tells the president what he wants to hear. Exhausted by predawn arrivals at the White House, Card is expected to step down soon (though he denies the rumors that he wants to replace Treasury Secretary John Snow). The lead candidates to replace Card are all loyalists, like OMB Director Josh Bolten, or Bush's old confidant and former Commerce secretary Don Evans (who is lukewarm about working full time in Washington).

Bush's war cabinet has included some very strong and independent-minded figures. Because they were at the end of their careers, with no office left to seek, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were seen as liberated to call things the way they saw them. But the headstrong Cheney and Rumsfeld seemed to almost relish scoffing at dissent.

Cheney in particular has acted as Bush's unofficial prime minister, playing a heavy hand in the war on terror and handling (or often mishandling) Hill relations. Though a former congressman himself, Cheney disdains Congress almost on principle: he believes the balance between executive and legislative power went out of whack after Watergate, and he has done his best to strengthen White House prerogatives. Cheney's bungling of the dicey issue of torture is a case in point.

When Sen. John McCain passed a Senate resolution by a vote of 90-9 to ban the "cruel, inhumane and degrading" treatment of detainees, Cheney, a former member of the House intelligence committee, went to Capitol Hill to carve out an exception for CIA officers. With CIA Director Porter Goss in tow, Cheney privately made the case to a group of GOP senators that "enhanced interrogation methods" work to extract necessary information from terrorists. The senators were unimpressed. Talking to NEWSWEEK afterward, McCain waxed confident that he "could get 90 votes again tomorrow." Since then, Bush's national-security adviser, Steve Hadley, has been gingerly negotiating with McCain for some face-saving compromise. The president is in a box: he can ill afford to make his first veto ever of a bill banning torture.

Bush was getting pushed to compromise by his secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who privately argued that Bush did not want his legacy to be a policy of torture. Some Washington observers believe that Rice, who --was frequently rolled by the hard-line hawks Cheney and Rumsfeld in the first term, is feeling empowered by her new role at State to take a stronger--and more moderate and internationalist--position in Bush's War Cabinet. But one former Bush 41 administration figure who knows her well (and declined to be identified for fear of giving offense) says of Rice's apparent evolution, "Don't read too much into it. Condi is not a neocon. But she's not Colin Powell, either."

On the overriding issue facing the president--the war in Iraq--some reality has slowly crept in. Last spring Cheney was still whistling past the graveyard, describing the Iraqi insurgency as in its "last throes." Since then, Bush's ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, has tried to educate the president and his top advisers on some "ground truth"--that the new Iraqi Army and police are a long way from being able to defend their own country and nascent government. According to senior Pentagon officials who did not want to be identified discussing private meetings, in October Bush received an unusually unvarnished briefing on the military situation from the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace.

What Bush actually hears and takes in, however, is not clear. And whether his advisers are quite as frank as they claim to be with the president is also questionable. Take Social Security, for example. One House Republican, who asked not to be identified for fear of offending the White House, recalls a summertime meeting with congressmen in the Roosevelt Room at which Bush enthusiastically talked up his Social Security reform plan. But the plan was already dead--as everyone except the president had acknowledged. Bush seemed to have no idea. "I got the sense that his staff was not telling him the bad news," says the lawmaker. "This was not a case of him thinking positive. He just didn't have any idea of the political realities there. It was like he wasn't briefed at all." (Bush was not clueless, says an aide, but pushing his historic mission.)

In subtle ways, Bush does not encourage truth-telling or at least a full exploration of all that could go wrong. A former senior member of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad occasionally observed Bush on videoconferences with his top advisers. "The president would ask the generals, 'Do you have what you need to complete the mission?' as opposed to saying, 'Tell me, General, what do you need to win?' which would have opened up a whole new set of conversations," says this official, who did not want to be identified discussing high-level meetings. The official says that the way Bush phrased his questions, as well as his obvious lack of interest in long, detailed discussions, had a chilling effect. "It just prevented the discussion from heading in a direction that would open up a possibility that we need more troops," says the official.

Bush generally prefers short conversations--long on conclusion, short on reasoning. He likes popular history and presidential biography (Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington), but by all accounts, he is not intellectually curious. Occasional outsiders brought into the Bush Bubble have observed that faith, not evidence, is the basis for decision making. Psychobabblers have long had a field day with the fact that Bush quit drinking cold turkey and turned around his life by accepting God. His close friends agree that Bush likes comfort and serenity; he does not like dissonance. He has long been mothered by strong women, including his mother and wife. A foreign diplomat who declined to be identified was startled when Secretary of State Rice warned him not to lay bad news on the president. "Don't upset him," she said.

Bush is never going to be a JFK who would hold glittery state dinners and use them to tease out new ideas and fresh thinking from different sources (and, it should be added in JFK's case, fresh gossip and romantic conquests). Bush has held four state dinners in five years and made clear his preference for going to bed at 10. Ken Duberstein, Reagan's last chief of staff and a whiz at congressional relations, recalled that when Nancy Reagan traveled, the president did not like to dine alone. So Duberstein would bring in seven or eight congressmen for dinner, and Reagan would tell his jokes and stories. Reagan even had House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill over for his birthday. Finally, Duberstein recalled, an aide had to step in and say, "It's time for you guys to go back to running the government." Bush prefers to flip on ESPN or go to Camp David for the weekend with Card and Harriet Miers, his trusted White House counsel (and failed Supreme Court nominee).

Bush, too, can be funny; his humor is Preppy Putdown, not gentle and corny, if sometimes off-color, like Reagan's. "It's the difference between Eureka and Yale," says an old Reagan hand. It's also a matter of condence. Reagan knew he was the best entertainer in the room. To be sure, Bush can be self-deprecating. Joking about his Council on Foreign Relations speech, Bush suggested to his speechwriters that, as a gag, he should hold up a copy of Foreign Affairs, the council's worthy, dry publication, and say, "I tried to read it once but the print was too small and there weren't enough pictures." (Bush decided against using the quip, considering the speech too much of a serious event.) But humor is a tool and sometimes a weapon for Bush. "He uses humor to disarm people and get a read on them," said a senior aide who wouldn't be identified talking about his boss. "You can tell a lot about a person in how they react to a joke."

During Bush's first term, his attitude toward Congress was "my way or the highway," according to a GOP staffer who did not want to be identified criticizing the president. "If you were lucky, you got to talk to him as you were taking a picture with him at a party," says Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican. "It was nothing." Lately, however, Bush has been inviting congressmen up to the family residence at the White House to drink sodas and snack on peanuts or cookies. Bush talks, then encourages feedback, good and bad. "He's very engaged," says Rep. Peter King, Republican of New York.

He has to be. Congressmen from his own party have been in open rebellion. At their annual leadership retreat at a luxury resort overlooking the Chesapeake Bay two weeks ago, senior congressmen tore into White House aides Card and Counselor Dan Bartlett. The normally mild-mannered Speaker Dennis Hastert, who usually likes to operate behind closed doors, announced to the group, which included staffers as well as members, that the White House had "blown it" when it came to handling congressional relations. There was still incredulity over the Murtha outburst demanding a troop withdrawal from Iraq. "They should have seen that coming like a freight train," said a top Republican. "In any White House the cardinal rule is no surprises," said Duberstein. "I was somewhat surprised, I admit," Card told NEWSWEEK. At the retreat, the Hill Republicans told the White House to do a better job of selling economic progress. The next day the White House put Bush into the Rose Garden to spin good news on the economy.

Now the White House is trying to reach out to Democrats. On Tuesday, Bush is scheduled to meet with a group of conservative Democrats who support the war and to have lunch with Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, who is celebrating his 50th year in the House. But the Democrats are wary. "A lot of us feel like we have a Char-lie Brown and Lucy relationship with the White House," says one Hill staffer. "They say they want to play ball with us, but then they kick us when they get a chance." Until recently, the White House has not seen the need to court Democrats, since the Republicans control both houses of Congress.

Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman has been pushing for a bipartisan "war council" that could advise the president on strategy. The Washington rumor mill has suggested Lieberman as a replacement for Rumsfeld. Friends of Rumsfeld's say he has no intention of stepping down. If Bush were to replace him with a Democrat, it would send a powerful signal that the days of the almighty Cheney-Rumsfeld axis were over. But don't hold your breath. "There is this enormous pressure to change, but he's going to resist that," says a longtime adviser. "He wants solid people who don't overrespond in a crisis." That was the approach Bush took after his devastating defeat in the New Hampshire primary in 2000. "The conventional wisdom after New Hampshire was to drop the team and start over," says a senior White House aide. "But he brought the team in and said: 'Let's go down to South Carolina and kick some butt'."

The leader of bush's political team was Karl Rove. Although his legal problems are not over in the Valerie Plame leak case, Rove has been upbeat and around town again, reportedly full of ideas for the next three years. Rove has succeeded in promoting Bush's political fortunes by polarizing--by aiming at 51 percent and calling it a mandate. It is possible that with some luck abroad and stroking of Congress at home Bush can take advantage of the GOP majority in both houses to get some traction on tough issues ahead, like restoring fiscal discipline. If the economy stays strong and Iraq doesn't fall apart, the GOP can hang on to Congress in 2006 (and thus in 2007 avoid a blizzard of subpoenas from Democratic-controlled committees wanting to investigate questions like whether the administration lied about WMD in Iraq). Yet it will be hard to please congressmen while cutting their pork barrel, and as usual, no one seems very eager to cut middle-class entitlement programs. Big changes that require vision and sacrifice--like an energy and conservation program to reduce dependency on Middle East oil--do not appear to be on the drawing board.

True mandates for hard choices come from reaching out and compromising. Bush's father understood that. Breaking his own "read my lips" promise at the 1988 Republican convention, he raised taxes in 1991 as part of a fiscal-reform package that was essential to the 1990s economic boom. The tax hike probably cost the senior Bush a second term in 1992. But it was the right thing to do. It's very unlikely the son would do the same.

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